Comment Writer Heather Mitchell delves deeper into issues of representation at the University, suggesting that the label, ‘BAME’ doesn’t do enough
‘BAME’ is the acronym for; Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and let’s face it, it’s outdated, rigid and immensely generalized. At my institution -The University of Birmingham-within the School of Government and Society that there is an attainment gap for BAME students of over 15% from 2018. For the first time in the department we faceless individuals of BAME have been working to create a society in order to support young students and creatives as they plough through the white-washed modules of Politics and International Relations.
The generalization of BAME is not enough to open the conversation of being ‘non-white’ in an incredibly white institution such as a red brick University. Generalizing and grouping together BAME individuals overlooks the nuances between our experience and unfortunately overlooks the (very much needed) support avenues which are appropriate for different people. It is important to take ownership over our labels and utilise any specific BAME opportunities that are intended to open avenues. The very existence of BAME schemes and work opportunities are stark reminders of the hierarchical ordering of society based on race and gender. Seeming as ‘race’ and how it is used by individuals and institutions is not natural- but socially constructed; the barriers that render our race ‘undesirable’ can and will be deconstructed.
In spending time in the BAME society, I was inspired by the involvement of two individuals. Throughout the sessions, people could come and openly share problems, experiences and simply spend time in a BAME-friendly environment. I came to realize how our shared concerns were overpowering any sense of individualism. Whilst discussing our concerns was necessary, this hyper-focus on what we ‘couldn’t do’ or what we ‘felt negative about’ meant we hadn’t particularly got to know each other, each other’s little habits, aspirations and senses of humour. This is often the reality of our personal BAME connections. I wanted to get to know Hannah and peel away her BAME tag to put a face to the label. Hannah is 22 and about to graduate in International Relations. Through our conversations we discussed one of the main problems highlighted in weekly BAME talks – with working within current institutions to create change. ‘I have no interest in working within the parameters of the current educational system as they’re simply not doing enough’, she says. Hannah’s personal aspirations of educating young, Black women is driving her to create her own company. The parameters she talks about come from the long-debated belief of whether changing the actual system would be more beneficial then working within the system.
Hannah continues ‘I want to work with my own company making education more accessible for young Black women- accessibility in both psychologically believing that they should have access to the same opportunities as their white counterparts and giving them the resources to put this belief into action.’ Getting to know Hannah I wanted to know what people would see if they looked past her label? Hannah explained how to her learned ‘code switching’ from growing up dual heritage makes her a reliable and committed friend. Through her warm and patient character I could easily believe this to be true. Hannah’s reservation came from explaining to me that it makes her sad that through the dominance of her BAME label, that people not of colour felt they could not relate to her.
The second individual at BAME I was able to speak to was Hasan. Hasan is 22 at the University of Birmingham, he is an avid spoken word performer and a passionate advocate for his Scottish-Kashmir heritage. Talking to Hasan, we delved into the importance of representation in society. The concept is pretty simple; representation creates cycles of repetition. We aspire to what we can see. We work towards what we think we can be and if we as young people have no exposure to roles headed by non-white people it dampens our belief of seeing ourselves in that role. Representation is often split into positive and negative representations. Hasan shed light on this by asserting ‘Our identity is only recognised when it suits others, but when we want it identified it is overlooked.’ Hierarchies of identity often place the BAME label first, pushing down other identities we relate with. Hasan’s experience of dual identities and their various representations opens the conversation of the nuances even within the United Kingdom. ‘So I am Scottish, but that part of my identity is often placed second when I am in England to my BAME label. There are a lot of ignorance and people are always surprised to hear a Scottish accent come from an Asian guy. I feel like in Scotland on television and in the media, Asian characters and speakers are better represented than they are in England.’
The dominance of our BAME label often overrides our other qualities. Yes we can discuss racial problems, yes we take seriously the changes which should be implemented at University and yes we can be grouped together in terms of our mission towards less stigmatization and reduced marginalization. But we also are unique people, with staggering variations and beautiful differences and aspirations. We of ‘BAME’ are not faceless.